Heterosexual Masculinities: Contemporary Perspectives From Psychoanalytic Gender Theory (Book Review)

Authors:   Reis, Bruce and Grossmark, Robert
Publisher:  Philadelphia, PA: Routledge, 20, 2009 
Reviewed By: Anthony F. Tasso, Fall 2011, 240pp.

On Men

The systematic study of non-heterosexual men was quite sparse in the early days of psychoanalysis. As a consequence of decades of normalized gender and sexuality being both male and gynecophilic, the past forty-years have seen a proliferation of gender-based theory, research, and treatment aimed to confront gender and sexual orientation-based alterity. Both within and outside of psychoanalysis, feminist and queer scholars have fervently engaged in the systematic study of women and GLBTG psychologies. Such focus has accomplished much, including shedding light on sociopolitical preclusions to equity and their subsequent impact on psychological well-being; broadening previous monolithic and pathologizing views; and proactively cautioning clinicians and researchers not to apply findings drawn from predominately heterosexual male patients and subjects to women and non-heterosexuals.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one group has not been including in this admirable widen- ing professional study: heterosexual males. In attempting to remedy the earlier gap in gender and sexuality theory and practice, heterosexual males have been deemed homogenous. The study of gender and sexuality in recent decades has meant the study of women and homosexuality. Although there have been excellent psychoanalytic works debunking the notion of static binary categorizations of gender and sexuality (Nancy Chodorow's 1994 Femininities, Masculinities, and Sexualities: Freud and Beyond and Adrienne Harris's 2005 Gender as Soft Assembly are both classics), contemporary concerted examinations of men have been conspicuously absent. Fogel, Lane, and Liebert's (1986) The Psychology of Men: New Psychoanalytic Perspectives thoroughly investigated maleness, but the text is now fifteen years old. Therefore, a study exploring not only manhood but focused on heterosexuality is long overdue.

Heterosexual Masculinities: Contemporary Perspectives from Psychoanalytic Gender Theory (Routledge Books) makes commendable strides towards filling the gender gap. Edited by Bruce Reis and Robert Grossmark, this book consists of a theoretically and clinically rich chapter from each of the contributing authors. With a primarily New York City psychoanalytic relational flavor, Heterosexual Masculinities plumbs the intrapsychic and interpersonal world of male heterosexuality. These analytic practitioners delve into the intricacies of men by carefully delineating healthy and pathological propensities and discussing sexual and non-sexual experiences. As such, this volume represents a much-needed addition to the psychoanalytic field, productively expanding the limited, narrowly focused literature on masculinity and manhood.

In Chapter 1 Ethel Person (Masculinities, Plural) describes different theories of masculinity and femininity through a discussion of biopsychoanalytic explanations of hormonal and chromosomal determinants, and later to the role of psychosocial structural influences on boys' adherence to more stereotypic masculine penchants. The author also identifies proactive aspects of masculinity (e.g., protectiveness, productiveness, and selflessness), and contrasts core gender identity (i.e., a nonconflictually derived self-identification as male or female) with gender role identity (i.e., a psychological and oft-conflictually derived self-identity with commonly masculine or feminine characteristics). Pearson explains how sociocultural shifts have led to a crossover of historical expressions of sexuality and masculinity, using the concurrent trends of gay men invested in strength and power and the increasing numbers of straight men invested in fashion as examples that punctuate the fluidity of masculinity. In this essay Pearson also examines the long-term deleterious effects of the developing boy's forced repudiation of mother combined with a paucity of parental warmth by stating how such experiences beget a lifelong struggle with intimacy and expressions of non-aggressive feelings. The focus on the early developmental experiences of boys and their subsequent impact on men's intra and interpersonal worlds is a thesis underscored throughout much of Heterosexual Masculinities.

Michael Diamond (Masculinity and its Discontents) expands on the impact of the developing boy's forced disconnection, or disidentification, with the mother and counter-identification with the father. The author compares theoretical male and female gender identity development by emphasizing boys' perceived need to vociferously reject emasculating "feminine" characteristics such as homoerotic urges and a desire for parental closeness. Diamond describes the disidentification process as indicative of how masculinity, not femininity, needs to continuously be "proven." Stated differently, masculinity is defined in the negative as not being feminine. Diamond, however, offers cogent critiques on the universality of this supposition by relying on clinical evidence suggesting that such categorical repudiation of the mother in concert with the counter-identification with the father occurs more within pathological family constellations and/or in the presence of certain biologically based determinants. Diamond uses attachment theory to explain how both mother and father-like figures are internalized, thus allowing the developing boy to define masculinity proactively utilizing warmth and nurturing as well as self-assertion and protectiveness. The author also contrasts phallic phase masculinities, which center around the phallus, its aim of orgasmic discharge, ostentatious power displays, sexual promiscuity, and the use of lower-level defenses, with genital masculinities, which consists of higher-level defenses, the desire for both orgasmic discharge and affective attachments as well as empathic attunement with others' needs. Diamond explains how genitality incorporates phallic strengths without the straight-jacketed parameters.

Bruce Reis opens Chapter 3 by elucidating the subtle ways in which male heterosexuality has been relegated to "other" and even non-gendered status in current academic and clinical circles, and how this has left many professional and lay persons with the perilous perception that heterosexual men are monolithically organized. Reis explains that more often than not heterosexual masculinity is defined by its putative defenses and limitations (e.g., homophobic, sexist, aggressive, sexually restrictive) and that men who identify as heterosexual are not afforded the same fluidity of sexual practices, social roles, and fantasies readily available to women and non-heterosexual men. The author accentuates the irony of how today's restrictive, negative, pathologizing views of male heterosexuality are strikingly similar to yesterday's theorizing on women and homosexuality. Reis, however, uses the consulting room to illuminate the essentially contradictory, pluralistic nature of several of his male patients, underlining the ease with which many heterosexual men embrace traditionally non-masculine roles. Next, Robert Grossmark reflects on his observed co-created experiences between himself, a heterosexual male analyst, and two of his heterosexual male analysands. The author first describes his treatment of a patient with an initial unremarkable "masculine" presentation. However, a reported dream about his daughter assayed the centrality of his masculinity, which centered on fatherhood, being fathered, and the multiple means of manhood. The author contrasts this man with a more disturbed patient who was wrought with rage and identity fragmentations. Grossmark explains how his containment of the latter patient's in-session expressions of rage and often disturbing sexual fantasies along with a willingness to expand the therapeutic parameters allowed for a receding of paranoia, rage, and distressing sadomasochistic fantasies.

In one of the more compelling essays, Irwin Hirsch's Imperfect Love, Imperfect Lives looks at the meanings of infidelity. The author provides clinical data on patients across a range: a man who identifies as heterosexual but partakes in cross-dressing and occasional homosexual behaviors; a highly successful elderly man who is devoted to his wife both practically and protectively, yet who engages in rampant infidelity (under the auspice of making a distinction between love and sex); a women patient crippled with post-affair anxieties; a married man who eventually opened-up to his wife about his primary identification as homosexual; and a married man guilt-ridden by his penchant for pornography and prostitutes. Hirsch ties these disparate clinical vignettes to a rich exploration of infidelity itself and how the meaning of such presumed relational indiscretions are as idio-syncratic as individuals. The author opens the door for an examination of the possibility of mutual adaptability of affairs for some– how some partners explicitly or implicitly consent to such marital arrangements without discernable difficulties and often with advantageous relational impacts. Hirsch uses attachment theory to parse commonly seen gender differences regarding infidelity, suggesting that, perhaps more for men than women, attachment (as manifested in long-term, maturely dependent partnerships) and sexual desires broach mutual exclusivity. He concludes by reporting that the male's propensity for boisterous discussions (and at times pursuits) of extramarital activities may be due to the historical experience of protracted dependency and humiliation at the hands of mother along with the simultaneous attempt to maintain a protective emotional distance from one's romantic partner. Also, in an act of raw professional vulnerability, Hirsch describes his analysis of a philandering man in which he clinically focused on "helping" him cease his marital transgressions and embrace monogamy. Following the patient's premature termination, Hirsch describes his post-treatment evaluation and the realization that a plausible reason for the early termination was due to his counter-transferentially based in-session expression of disapproval about his patient's perfidiousness, openly assessing how he essentially failed to meet his patient's needs. The author uses his probable empathic failure as a way to caution practitioners from allowing their personal mores to influence their patient work. Although the need for clinicians to be mindful of moralizing with patients is nothing new, to hear an experienced analyst chronicle the ways in which countertransference can insidiously spoil therapy from a personal point of view rather than merely a theoretical discussion adds substantial strength to this part of Heterosexual Masculinities.

Emmanuel Kaftal (On Intimacy Between Men) investigates the near-pervasive experience of the male hero fantasy. Kaftal describes male development that creates awareness of women as primary nurturers and girls as primary recipients of nurturing– how being thrown in a world in which there is, at-best, exiguous paternal affectionate attention boys are forced to develop the self-soothing penchant of turning inward towards the image of the hero. Leaning on Benjamin, Rank, and Winnicott, the author describes how the disconnect between affective attunement between father and son later results in solipsistic and emotional withholding tendencies complementing more aggressive "phallic-narcissistic" tendencies — all of which aim to buttress a fragile sense of self trying to persevere in an environment lacking sufficient nurturing. Kaftal concludes with a discussion on the effectiveness of an intersubjective clinical approach that facilitates the co-experience of the male patient's establishment of self within the safe confines of a nurturing therapeutic relationship.

In a unique essay, William Cornell autobiographically describes his experience as an analysand in which his analyst's apparent countertransferential focus on his same-sex relationships led to an "accidental" breach of Cornell's confidentiality to an analytic group about his own sexual and relational interests in both men and women. Cornell describes his vexation following this plausibly treatment-ending enactment and takes us through the ensuing personal and treatment processes that led to his decision to remain with the same analyst. The author links their mutual willingness to reveal their feelings for one another as pivotal in his decision to remain with his elderly therapist. He describes how the post-enactment work begot in-treatment expressions of mutual admiration, love, and eroticized affection between the two. From Cornell's experience as a patient, Heterosexual Masculinities moves to Eyal Rozmarin's (Chapter 8) musings on the process of marriage by discussing two of his male patients, both of whom were getting married during analysis, one to a woman, the other a man. Rozmarin juxtaposes the impetuses and experiences of each man's marriage: how his heterosexual patient struggled with the conformity of the institution of marriage whereas his homosexual patient embraced the "legitimizing" of his romance with alacrity. The author balances the role of sociopolitical forces along with each patient's individual psychology to illuminate their subjective meanings of marriage, which leaves the reader with a greater understanding of the interaction between social and internal factors on relationships.

Also balancing social and idiographic influences, C. Jama Adams (Chapter 9) explores the masculinity of impoverished African American men. Opening with a discussion of the dearth of psychoanalytic attention to macrocultural influences on the individual, Adams describes how the implicit beliefs that heterosexuality, whiteness, and autonomy are the normalized definition of masculinity coupled with the omni-present experiences of racism, sexism, and classism create serious barriers for many African American men to achieve a healthy sense of masculinity. The author states that this leads many African American men to develop what Adams refers to as a "respectable" lifestyle (i.e., adherence to "mainstream" mores and aspirations within the sociocultural restraints for Black men, though often with an undercurrent of dysphoria), and others a "reputational" style (i.e., hyperdominance and aggressiveness, with overt homophobic and sexist posturing) and discusses how the former fears assertiveness while the latter is assertive and destructively fearless. Adams closes by undergirding the need for clinicians to pay careful attention to institutional and socio-political oppressive factors in concert with one's individual psychological world, and explicates the need to be mindful of the seductive lure of focusing too much on one at the exclusion of the other.

Adrienne Harris and Louis Rothschild (Chapters 10 & 11) each explore fatherhood. In a strikingly personal essay, Harris traces her childhood experiences and the ways in which she developed a vividly constructed image of her physically absent father, who was overseas during World War II. Harris uses her upbringing as a springboard to investigate her clinical work, and theorizes on the co-evolvement of genders, identities, and sexualities born out of the ongoing relational interactions between parent and child. The author postulates that father-daughter relationships serve as a vehicle by which fathers are able to expand their narrow confines of manhood (e.g., aloof, autonomous, a-relational) and how their empathic attunement with a daughter imbues her with his "masculine" characteristics of motility, activity, and aggressiveness. Also leaning on a personal parent-child relationship, Louis Rothschild examines fatherhood prompted by his nurturing of his transiently ill son. Rothschild illustrates the complexities of contemporary fathering via the children's cartoon film Finding Nemo (Stanton, 2003) in which there is a poignant father-son relationship centered around the empathic father's sensitivity, parental anxieties, and his struggles with his own need for dependency vis-à-vis his son's burgeoning sense of autonomy. Taken together, Harris and Rothschild beautifully explicate the intricacies of fatherhood, while offering different perspectives of fathering. As Harris describes the positive outgrowth of today's less restrictive paternal and masculine roles, Rothschild describes the uncertainty left in the wake of the postmodern jettisoning of the "father-knows-best" omniscient status. Both accentuate a father's ability and willingness to be "soft" and nurturing with rich clinical vignettes. As such, these two chapters of Heterosexual Masculinities comfortably integrate the personal experiences of the authors with theory and practice.

Gerald Fogel (Interiority and Inner Genital Space in Men) closes Heterosexual Masculinities by describing men's experiences of both "traditional" masculine phalicity and activity and "traditional" feminine receptivity and passivity. In the process, he reconceptualizes castration anxieties by suggesting that such fantasies potentially tap into empowering internalized maternal representations. Offering several vignettes, Fogel illuminates the ways in which innate bisexual/contradictory experiences of activity/passivity, openness/closeness, penetration/receptivity, domination/submission, and life/death comfortably coexist in one's intrapsychic world and explains how such binaries allow the psychologically mature person to have rich, complementary experiences germane to healthy functioning.

Heterosexual Masculinities represents a much-needed addition to the psychoanalytic literature. While attention to men and heterosexuality has been thoroughly lacking in recent decades, Reis and Grossmark present a text that fully immerses the reader in contemporary male gender theorizing. Steeped in patient work, skilled clinicians apply analytic thinking to the consulting room in order to demonstrate the complexities of male, primarily heterosexual, psychologies. The authors featured in Heterosexual Masculinities offer cogent clinical hypotheses about healthy and pathological male heterosexual proclivities based on a range of clinical cases.

The approach and structure of each author is as varied as men themselves. Chapters range from primarily metapsychological (Diamond, Fogel, Kaftal, Person), to personal developmental experiences (Harris), to socio-political (Adams), and from the patient's perspective (Cornell), to the focus on the consulting room experience (Grossmark, Hirsch, Rozmarin) to a near-even balance between theory and application (Reis, Rothschild). As such, Heterosexual Masculinities offers a unique range of clinical information on the breadth of male sexuality.

Reis and Grossmark's excellent read is sure to be appreciated by any analytically oriented practitioner. Certain to enhance one's clinical work with men at-large, regardless of sexual orientation, Heterosexual Masculinities widens conceptual and treatment abilities by providing a solid analytic prospective to go along with rich consulting room data. The authors offer a balanced view of heterosexual men by highlighting proactive and destructive aspects of masculinity. A successful extension of previous analytic texts that cover the multifaceted aspects of gender and sexuality, this book will help practitioners in the direct treatment of men and couples and will be an ancillary aid with women patients in better understanding the men in their lives. In other words, Heterosexual Masculinities will significantly help one's clinical work, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of their patients.

Nonetheless, Heterosexual Masculinities suffers from limitations. One weakness is its lack of research-based information. Although the text is theoretically and clinically heavy, it is scientifically light. Whereas works like the atheoretical A New Psychology of Men (Levant & Pollack, 1998) provides a rigorous empirical exploration of men, Heterosexual Masculinities does not. However, the lack of scientifically grounded psychoanalytic evidence is a result of the lack of such research, not an omission by the authors or editors. Perhaps an unexpected positive outgrowth of Heterosexual Masculinities will be the stimulation of systematic laboratory and applied empirical examinations of psychoanalytic gender theory and treatment. Another limitation of this book is that many of the chapters are reprints and extensions of earlier published articles and do not represent new scholarship. Even so, Heterosexual Masculinities is a worthy purchase as having this collection of well-written works as a reference in one place is quite handy. In sum, Heterosexual Masculinities: Contemporary Perspectives from Psychoanalytic Gender Theory is a true asset to any clinician wishing to better understand the men with whom they work.


Chodorow, N. (1994). Femininities, masculinities, and sexualities: Freud and beyond. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Fogel, G.I., Lane, F.M., & Liebert, R.S. (Eds.) (1986). The psychology of men: New psychoanalytic perspectives. New York: Basic Books.

Harris, A. (2005). Gender as soft assembly. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Levant, R.F. & Pollack, W.S. (Eds.) (1998). A new psychology of men. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Stanton, A. (Writer/Director). (2003). Finding Nemo. Pixar Studios.

Reviewer Note

Anthony F. Tasso, PhD, ABPP is Assistant Professor of Psychology & Counseling, Fairleigh Dickinson University; New Jersey & New York licensed Psychologist in private practice, Morristown, New Jersey.


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